Falik and His House

Jacob Dine­zon, Mindy Liber­man (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – August 2, 2021

A Yid­dish lul­la­by, Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym,” based on the poem by twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry writer Itzik Manger, nar­rates a sto­ry famil­iar to many read­ers of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. If you don’t stand in my way, then, one-two, I’ll quick­ly become a bird,” a child tells his moth­er, con­tem­plat­ing leav­ing a fig­u­ra­tive nest for a fur­ther tree. The moth­er, in turn, is over­ly cau­tious, advis­ing the child to take a scarf, a fur hat, and win­ter galosh­es, attempt­ing to delay her lit­tle one from leav­ing. In the end, the child nar­rates sor­row­ful­ly, Her love did not allow me to become a bird.”

Falik and His House by Yid­dish-lan­guage writer Jacob Dine­zon explores sim­i­lar themes of leav­ing home for the prover­bial next tree. Falik Sher­man, a tai­lor, and his wife Matle live in a house that, despite its sag­ging roof, is Falik’s great­est pride. So impor­tant is the house to him that Falik often per­ceives his home as hav­ing emo­tions that mir­ror his own. A per­son, a house,” Falik says, both the same.”

Yet Falik’s house, like its own­er, has fall­en into old age, and its roof is full of holes that he can’t afford to repair. Falik’s chil­dren encour­age him to sell the house to a wealthy neigh­bor and join them in Amer­i­ca. Ever since Jews began sail­ing for Amer­i­ca, the par­ents have become chick­ens, and the chil­dren — ducks! We stand at the edge of the water and watch with dread as our chil­dren swim across the ocean. We can’t swim after them,” Matle weeps, but Falik is less con­vinced about the prospect of aban­don­ing his house for Amer­i­ca. In his home­town, he has the pride of a house he built him­self, neigh­bors who val­ue his trade, and a famil­iar Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Is that not worth fight­ing for?

Falik and His House was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1901, and while its narrator’s trou­bles are spe­cif­ic to the time peri­od, Falik’s conun­drum seems like a time­less ques­tion about anx­i­ety sur­round­ing Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. When one’s sense of self is so tied to spe­cif­ic tra­di­tions, how does one adapt to a mod­ern age? Is let­ting go of one’s leaky house an inevitabil­i­ty, or should loy­al­ty to one’s fig­u­ra­tive home be able to with­stand a flood­ed liv­ing room occasionally?

Dinezon’s nov­el is a delight­ful and poignant read pre­cise­ly because it doesn’t answer these ques­tions. The book depicts Falik’s strug­gles with humor and patience, with­out pass­ing judg­ment on either Falik’s sons in Amer­i­ca or Falik’s own predica­ment. It’s also a plea­sure to read a sto­ry where the pass­ing of time is so tied to Jew­ish­ness; Dine­zon marks the chang­ing of the sea­sons with var­i­ous Jew­ish hol­i­days, and Falik’s work­load is tied to the busy sea­son at synagogue.

Falik’s sto­ry does have an end­ing, but it’s one that meets the unique needs of the char­ac­ter, rather than shar­ing a decree for every Jew­ish char­ac­ter strug­gling with whether or not to leave the famil­iar­i­ty of the shtetl for the paved streets of New York City. Ulti­mate­ly, Dine­zon seems to be sug­gest­ing, there is a tree for every bird. Whether or not Falik should fly away can only be deter­mined by one man (and, of course, his house).

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